Roma and the Redeemer’s Art

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Sometimes it takes a maid as stoic as Cleo to scrub away the remains of Latin America’s Dirty Wars

IN YET ANOTHER powerful set piece in Roma, a film painted to perfection in black and white by a vivid memoirist, a pregnant Cleo and the matriarch of the house where she is a live-in maid brave the streets of Mexico City circa 1971. The camera peers through armoured trucks parked in a tableau of imminent terror to catch up with the women. They are now inside a shop, bargaining for a crib for Cleo’s baby, and outside the shop’s glass window, we see a student demonstration turning violent. A student runs in, and he is shot dead. And then a young man appears before Cleo with the balletic fluidity of a killer trained in martial arts, pointing a gun at her. Fermin is the vanished father of the child she carries. It is at this ‘historic’ moment that Cleo breaks her water.

Written, edited, photographed and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Roma has already become a cultural event, bagging top awards and dominating conversations in the run-up to the Oscars. The controlled elegance of its portrait of a middle-class family, as trapped as the caged parrots and a dog named Borras, its shared loves and betrayals, and the muted stoicism of the fraternity of the abandoned coalesce in the brooding, melancholic frames created by a true master, whose earlier works include Children of Men, a dystopian chase film, and Gravity, an existential drama set in outer space.

Roma is Cuarón’s personal testament, a re-imagination of him growing up in a big house in the suburbs of Mexico City, in the care of a loving nanny who inspired the character of Cleo. The personal overwhelms the film, told through Cleo, who hardly speaks, and what brews within her even the poetry of Cuarón’s camera can’t capture. She is the narrator with the fewest words. She is the presence that fills the house—and the lives of the children, three boys and a girl. All the grown-ups in the house are women—the wife who has been left by her husband, her mother, the cook, and Cleo. “No matter what they tell you, women are always alone,” Sofia, the wife, tells Cleo at some point, “Now we are alone.”

No one is more alone than Cleo, who is marked by absences even as she brings order to the lives of others in the house. From the dialect she speaks with the other maid, it’s evident that she is an outsider who keeps the language of intimacy to herself. Even as the world around her gets disjointed, emotionally as well as physically—a lumbering Ford Galaxie, a New Year Eve lightened up by wildfires, departures and arrivals heralded by a band and other such imagery add to the quiet disintegration—she doesn’t lose her balance. There is dignity in her sorrow.

What is less dwelt upon is the political context of Cleo’s sorrow. Fermin reappears for a fleeting moment before a terrified Cleo in the shop on the day of the Corpus Christi festival, and in Roma, Cuarón pays homage to the body of Christ by lingering on an image of a mother wailing over her dead son on the sidewalk—a filmmaker’s Pietá for a brutalised motherland in memory. On that day in 1971, when Cuarón was ten, scores of students marching for democracy were killed by a militia recruited by the dictatorship of Luis Echeverría Álvarez of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for most of the last century. The Corpus Christi massacre, in which even injured students in hospital beds were not spared, was Mexico’s Tiananmen Square, so to speak. It was the high point of Mexico’s ‘Dirty War’.

Fermin reappears as an agent of death when Cleo is on the verge of giving birth. As it turns out, even Cleo can’t reward a hired killer of a pseudo-revolutionary regime with the hope—or redemption —of a new life. “I didn’t want her to be born,” she sobs later in the film. In the beginning of their short-lived relationship, a naked Fermin performs a piece of martial arts with a bathroom rod. He, like Cleo, is an outsider, and he tells her how this new passion for a combat technique has brought a kind of stability to his life. (It will bring stability only to a dehumanising regime.) He has found his peace, and now, Cleo foolishly believes, his love.

The political gets starker when Cleo goes in search of the missing Fermin. She walks through the dirty swamps of a shantytown, and seems not to notice the posters of Echeverría fluttering in the wind. When she reaches the ground where Fermin and other volunteers are training under Professor Zovek, straight out of the comic book, it is unlikely that she notices ‘LEA’, initials of the president, written on a mountain slope in eye-grabbing irony. It is also suggested that there is an invisible American hand behind the training of an assassination squad for yet another Latin American dictator. Here too, when all the volunteers fail Zovek’s meditation technique, Cleo, an onlooker, succeeds —she always strikes a balance between dignity and despair. Even when Fermin calls her a whore after she tells him she is pregnant. The squalor and desolation of the place once again provide a suitable backdrop to the sociology of ‘revolutionary’ regimes. They make the Fermins, who in turn find their inner equilibrium by giving in to the art of killing for the revolution.

Echeverría is still alive, a monumental reminder of an era whose survivors included a maid who worked in the middle-class neighbourhood of Colonia Roma, from where the film draws its name. Today in Mexico, another old man is in power whose socialist populism will find in Cleo a slogan-worthy cause. Latin America, though, is home to larger ironies.

In another time, it was not the filmmaker but the novelist who played the redeemer in a continent where every dictator fantasised about becoming a Simón Bolívar. In a sense, what the trinity of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes was to fiction in the 80s is what Alejandro González Inárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro are to cinema today. These Mexicans have crossed the border and brought a Latin American sensibility to the Hollywood mainstream, as distinctive as the fading vendor’s call in Roma. Beneath the magic of the Latin American boom in fiction simmered the raw realism of a society savaged by patriarchs and paranoiacs larger than their historical size. In the mise en scènes of Cuarón and company, the political is more suggestive than visible. Sometimes it takes a maid as stoic as Cleo to scrub away the remains of Latin America’s Dirty Wars. In Roma, it is a sacrificial act of humanity.